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Book Review: Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury


Although it often seems that lawyers spend most of their time in the courtroom (Boston Legal style), the reality is that most cases settle before going to court. They settle because lawyers actually spend most of their time negotiating. So negotiating is probably an important skill for budding lawyers to learn. For anyone just starting out, Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury is the negotiation bible.

The book came out of the Harvard Negotiation Project, which used the psychology of negotiation to come up with the best way to obtain a win-win result. The authors argue that the major problem in many negotiations is that people assume positions that are either hard or soft. Their suggestion in the book is that rather than being either hard on the people and the problem, or soft on people and problem, negotiators should be soft on the people and hard on the problem. They call this approach “principled negotiation.”

The majority of the book is spent on 'The Method' – how to actually do “principled negotiation.” For your reading pleasure, or just in case you have a negotiation assessment this week, this involves:

  • Separating the people from the problem;

  • Focusing on interests, not positions;

  • Generating options for mutual gain; and

  • Using mutually agreed and objective criteria for evaluating possible solutions.

Basically, the most important part of this process is to focus on interests. It is difficult to come to a mutually beneficial agreement if parties don't look at the interests that underlie the positions. A simple way of demonstrating this concept is with the classic story of the orange. There were two chefs who each needed one whole orange for their dish. However, there was only one orange available. What they agreed upon was to split the orange in half. One chef went away and used only the juice of his half, while the other chef used only the rind. Had they focused on the other person’s interest in the orange, a better, mutually beneficial agreement could have been reached. Genius.

One of the last chapters of the book is called “Yes But...”

What if they are more powerful?

In these circumstances they recommend that you prepare a BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) i.e. a Red Line which will not be crossed. Be prepared to walk away.

What if they won't play?

You should use principled negotiation to encourage them to do the same. If they continue to attack using positional bargaining, refuse to retaliate and redirect their attacks on the problem. They term this Negotiational Jujitsu! If necessary, involve a third party to diffuse the views of the opposing parties.

What if they use dirty tricks?

If the one party uses lies, psychological abuse or pressure tactics, it is common for the other to respond with either appeasement or reciprocal dirty tricks. The authors instead recommend a three-pronged approach:

  • Recognition of the trick being played (so that you can ignore it)

  • Drawing attention to the trick being played

  • Negotiation about the negotiation itself, i.e. about the rules within which the negotiation will be conducted

So there you have it, a summary of the negotiation bible. The book is quite short and can be read easily. They go into a lot of detail about each step, so you can easily skip a few pages once you get the gist of what they're saying. It's a hugely beneficial book to have a look through. Universities seem to be gearing the future generation of lawyers towards this approach, so go forth, read and practice, practice, practice!

P.S. – A word of caution. The title of this book is rather unfortunate. I have heard tales of people covering the book with another book cover for train rides. My fears were confirmed when I was asked by the sale assistant at the bookshop whether it would come under business or self-help...

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